Domestic right-wing terrorists, like the man accused of the shooting last weekend in El Paso, are not so different from their radical Islamist counterparts across the globe — and not only in their tactics for spreading terror or in their internet-based recruiting. Indeed, it is impossible to understand America’s resurgence of reactionary extremism without understanding it as a fundamentally religious phenomenon.
Unlike Islamist jihadists, the online communities of incels, white supremacists and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists make no metaphysical truth claims, do not focus on God and offer no promise of an afterlife or reward. But they fulfill the functions that sociologists generally attribute to a religion: They give their members a meaningful account of why the world is the way it is. They provide them with a sense of purpose and the possibility of sainthood. They offer a sense of community. And they establish clear roles and rituals that allow adherents to feel and act as part of a whole. These aren’t just subcultures; they are churches. And until we recognize the religious hunger alongside the destructive hatred, we have little chance of stopping these terrorists.
Now more than ever, the promises religion has traditionally made — a meaningful world, a viable place within it, a community to share it with, rituals to render ordinary life sacred — are absent from the public sphere. More and more Americans are joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. There are more religious “nones” than Catholics or evangelicals, and 36 percent of those born after 1981 don’t identify with any religion. These new reactionary movements, with their power to offer answers at once mollifying and vituperative to the chaos of existence, is one of many ways that Americans are filling that gap.
Not all of the extremists who carried out massacres in recent years — the 2014 University of California Santa Barbara killings, the 2018 Toronto van attack, the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, to name just a few — shared the same politics. While most expressed some combination of avowedly white supremacist, anti-Semitic or misogynist views, few were part of specific, organized movements or even had coherent political outlooks. But what nearly all of these perpetrators shared was a cosmic-level worldview that fetishizes violence as a kind of purifying fire: a destruction necessary to “reset” the world from its current broken state. This atavistic worldview idealizes an imagined past, one that predates the afflictions of, say, feminism and multiculturalism.
On far-right message boards, these men discover — or are indoctrinated with — intoxicatingly simplistic etiologies that claim to explain the apparent chaos of contemporary life. Instead of cosmic battles between God and the devil to explain the problem of evil, they find conspiracy theories: The world is secretly run by a network of Jews planning to wipe out the white race; oppressive feminazis are planning to make men obsolete.
At the same time, these groups promise their members a sense of purpose within that chaotic world: a chance to participate in a cleansing fire. They are called to take up the mantle of warriors for the cause. No longer are these men “betas” (a common insult in alt-right circles) — they are would-be heroes. Just look at the language used in the manifesto written by the man accused of the shooting in El Paso: He cast himself as a hero “honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction.” His language, like that of the jihadist, is a form of mythic self-making: He recasts himself as someone with a vital role to play in a cosmic war.
But the social and communal appeal of these groups is nearly as important to understand as their ideological, world-shaping ones. Like nearly all religious groups, they use shared languages and shared rituals. By posting or retweeting a racist or sexist meme or by using highly specific in-group jargon — incels deploring attractive, sexually desirable “Chads” and “Staceys,” or white supremacists crowing about being “based” (short for supporting “race-based” science) — members of these groups reiterate, and reify, the narratives of hate around them.
Perhaps most important, these groups give their adherents, many of whom perceive themselves as socially isolated, a sense of community. Online message boards become disembodied Knights Templar. When men (and it is usually men) post about their frustrations with dating (blaming choosy “Staceys” and feminists) or the job market (blaming immigrants), there are thousands of like-minded posters waiting in the wings to comfort them. They provide the sense of social place that the outside world cannot. Fellow posters on Reddit become not merely names on a screen but sources of reassurance, brothers-in-arms.
This brotherhood has its own hierarchy and its own hagiography. Those who have committed mass murders are often venerated as martyrs for their causes: Elliot Rodger, the misogynist gunman behind the killings in Santa Barbara, is lauded across the incel internet as the “Supreme Gentleman;” within hours of the El Paso shooting, the gunman was deemed a “saint” on white nationalist forums. To commit an act of terrorism may not yield the same metaphysical reward promised by radical Islam to its martyrs, but it nevertheless assures practitioners a certain kind of in-group status. So long as there is an internet, their chosen brothers will remember them.
It is necessary to condemn these hate groups and their atrocities. But it is simplistic, — and ineffectual — to do so in a vacuum. To characterize these killers as lonely, disaffected, disenchanted men, rebels in search of a cause, is not to ameliorate the atrocity of their actions, nor to excuse them as merely “misunderstood.” Rather, it is to envision a productive way forward — a chance to de-radicalize some of them before they commit acts of violence, to provide people with a different form of “lifefuel.”
The very trappings of interconnected, meaning-rich social life — lost in an increasingly fractured age, with a presidential administration that stokes further division — are very real human needs. Theistic or civic, institutional or grass roots, online or off, we all need to foster churches. Certainly, we can see in the concurrent rise of the “spiritual but not religious” and its own host of modern-day movements — from the cult of wellness to the rise of modern occultism — a cornucopia of new, varyingly successful efforts to fill our spiritual gaps without violence or hate.
When we ignore the religious aspect of extremist groups, we allow them to claim the monopoly on meaning. That’s not ground I, at least, am willing to cede.